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Military extends all tours of duty

By Eric Ruder | April 20, 2007 | Pages 1 and 3

SECRETARY OF Defense Robert Gates announced in mid-April that tours of duty for all active-duty soldiers would be extended from 12 to 15 months, effective immediately.

Gates was quick to deny that his decision suggested anything dire about the health of the U.S. military. "I think that if the Army were 'broken,' you would not see these kinds of retention rates and our ability to recruit," said Gates, noting that the Army met its March recruiting goal.

But according to military experts not constrained by the need to uphold the Bush administration's fantasy world, multiple and extended deployments, depleted stocks of weaponry and vehicles, and dwindling public support for the war are pushing the U.S. military to the brink of collapse.

"No one with a brain in his or her head thinks that the U.S. Army isn't now progressively starting to come apart," retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said in a March 29 interview with the Military Times.

Gates may be technically correct that the Army met its March recruiting goal, but barely. The Army Reserve didn't make its target, and the Army only "succeeded" by lowering its standards with respect to "moral turpitude, drug use, medical issues, criminal justice records and non-high school graduation," in McCaffrey's words.

What else to read

Some of the best reporting on the crisis in the military--especially the scandalous conditions that wounded service members have faced at VA facilities in the U.S.--is by Mark Benjamin. Read his articles at Salon.com--most recently, "Injured troops shipped into battle" and "VA report found Walter Reed problems in 2004."

For news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives by antiwar veterans and active-duty troops, go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site. Troops who need advice about their rights should go to the GI Rights Hotline Web site, or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

 

Retired Major Gen. Robert Scales, a former adviser to Donald Rumsfeld and frequent CNN commentator, put the issue in even starker terms. "Today, anecdotal evidence of collapse is all around," said Scales. "The Army's collapse after Vietnam was presaged by a desertion of mid-grade officers and non-commissioned officers...If we lose our sergeants and captains, the Army breaks again."

Precisely this sort of mass exodus of young officers is taking place today. In 2001, 903 West Point graduates received commissions as Army officers. Almost half left the service last year at the end of their first five-year contract, and more than 54 percent of the 935 graduates from the class of 2000 had left active-duty by the beginning of this year.

The Army hasn't lost such a large number of officers since 1977 (with the exception of the years at the end of the Cold War when the military encouraged officers to leave in order to downsize). During the Vietnam War, the officer corps collapsed as a result of the organized efforts of antiwar GIs that led to a disintegration of military discipline--ultimately undermining the effectiveness of the military's fighting abilities.

The Army now faces a shortfall of 3,000 experienced officers--a development that Scales described as "pretty much irreversible." "These soldiers are the canaries in the readiness coal mine," said Scales. "If you look closely, you will see that these canaries are fleeing their cages in frightening numbers."

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TO COPE with the shortfall, the military is even seeking to re-deploy officers and enlisted soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hunter Smart, a captain in the Third Brigade, applied for and received a medical retirement discharge, but he had to fight against being redeployed. As an officer in charge of compiling unit status reports, he saw firsthand the pressure on commanders to deploy every one of their troops.

Military commanders "could care less about the soldier's physical and mental welfare, as long as they can shoot straight," Smart told Salon.com's Mark Benjamin. "Commanders are being backed into a corner in order to produce units that on paper are ready to deploy. They are casting the moral and ethical implications--and soldiers--to the side."

Injured soldiers--whether suffering from PTSD, physical injuries or other debilitating conditions--are increasingly forced to take desperate measures to keep from being sent back to the war zone.

Army Spc. Thomas Smith had to check himself into a military hospital at Fort Benning, Ga., to keep his commander from forcing him to redeploy to Iraq--even though a military doctor had advised that his sudden bouts of extreme anger meant he shouldn't have access to weapons and shouldn't be deployed.

At an Army base in Alaska last year, "There was one guy who literally chopped off his trigger finger with an axe to prevent his deployment," Dr. Thomas Grieger told the New York Times.

In addition to finding men and women to deploy, the military is also scrambling to deal with widespread equipment shortages.

"Most of the trucks and humvees and mobile kitchens and generators get enormously beat up [in Iraq's harsh desert climate]," said Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank. "A large percentage of the equipment of the U.S. Army...bought during the Reagan era is now on its last legs." At least one division at a large base only has 30 of its 240 tanks in working order.

"This is the knot tied in the end of the rope," said Goure. "We cannot do this again. If we don't see substantial progress allowing us to reduce the overall size of the force in Iraq by the end of the year, we are at grave risk of breaking the Army."

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